- The Secrets of the Master
In 1909, Henry James went out into the garden of his house in Sussex and made a massive bonfire of forty years’ worth of letters and private papers. In 1915, he did it again. Not for him, evidently, Kafka’s risk, that of requesting a Max Brod to destroy manuscripts after his death, an entrusting one may suspect of not having been wholehearted. James seems to have been in no doubt that doing away with this evidence was the right thing to do. Yet—evidence of what? Would whatever was in those letters fill in the gaps in our knowledge of James’s private life? This is a writer who left a style as recognizable as a logo and, it appears, left his readers with an unabated curiosity about what really went on inside the polished dome of his head. What could that reticent, passionate, and yet ultimately solitary person have so dreaded our discovering? Would the letters define his “obscure hurt” or tell us whether he went to his grave a virgin? Or reveal just how much of himself he promised to Constance Woolson and then rescinded? And what would we have if we did discover these things?
It’s known that James was in the grip of a depression the first time he did away with his evidence; the second, he knew he didn’t have long to live. Had he been in his usual health, it’s tempting to conjecture he might have acted otherwise. On the other hand, perhaps a somber mood simply made more palpable the risk of leaving behind such relics. He couldn’t control what would become of the letters he’d sent (though in at least one instance he succeeded), but perhaps destroying his half of the correspondence would leave the rest more ambiguous. So keen himself about human psychology, so avid to delve into it, he felt a profound distaste at the prospect of posterity’s grubby pawing about in his, neglecting his carefully edited published work to look for first drafts in his life. A deep believer in privacy, he felt horror at the thought of having his experience distorted by others’ misunderstandings, an experience routinely suffered by his characters. And yet, ironically, his self-protective measures seem practically designed to invite imaginations to insinuate themselves into the interstices. In a turn of the screw that one would like to think would amuse James—if he could overcome his revulsion—within the past decade, he has appeared as a character in no fewer than six published novels, with who knows how many more [End Page 197] in progress. Something is missing, these writers—including the present one—seem to have felt, that imagination may be able to supply.
Obviously, historical figures have inspired novels whose goals have been to reanimate the past, to make it accessible to latter-day readers (what did a boy in ancient Rome feel?) or to reveal the inner life of public figures (Mary Stuart was a vulnerable human being, and her dog loved her). Records not available during the subject’s lifetime are consulted, and so on. In this genre in recent years not only is greater liberty taken in imagining the subject’s interior life, but writers seem to be attracted less by the historical record than by gaps in it. Things known to have happened—meetings taken place, letters written, friendships clandestinely maintained, love affairs rumored—but for which there remains no determinate evidence. Janice Galloway’s Clara (2003) (starring Clara Schumann), Lew McCreary’s Mount’s Mistake (1987) (Thomas Edison), Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) (Richard Nixon), and Eric Zencey’s Panama (1995) (Henry Adams) are a few examples. The hope seems to be that the novelist will imaginatively penetrate where plodding, evidence-shackled biographers could not gain access. For a novelist, too, there is the not inconsiderable comfort of a book’s plot coming ready made, a reprieve from the vertigo of being author. One is already authorized, flashes a press card.
With writers as subjects, what’s going on is even trickier. Writers are people who presumably have said what they...